Minnesota Timberwolves

Wolves vs. Rockets: Recap

The Minnesota Timberwolves are trailing behind in the NBA playoffs. They were falling into a 0-2 deficit against the Houston Rockets because Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns hadn’t shown up to play for the past two games. Finally, the Wolves responded back with a 121-105 victory on Saturday. The question is, can they do it again?

Wolves turning Things around

The two superstars finally woke up and put on a show at home in Game 3. Butler led the way, coming out in full beast mode throughout the whole game. For the first half, he had 11 points, shooting 5-8 of his shots. He then ended the night with 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmy Butler pulls up shot. April 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Earlier in the series, Butler only averaged 12 points for the first two games of the series. Towns finally got past Houston’s double-team defense and had a breakout game as well. For the first two games of the series, he was locked down against Houston’s defense, being double-teamed and was only scoring single-digit numbers.

This was very rare for a player who averages 20 plus points per game since 1979. In the game, on Saturday, Towns didn’t score until the second quarter. He finally broke loose after dunking over Rockets’ center Clint Capela. Towns finished the night with 18 points shooting 5 for 13, but it still wasn’t one of his best games.

Five Wolves Scored more than 17 points

These two superstars weren’t the only ones who contributed to the win. They had help throughout the whole game. Andrew Wiggins has been the main standout throughout the whole series, scoring 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in Saturday’s game. Former Cleveland Cavalier, Derrick Rose provided assistance for the Wolves coming off the bench. He finished the night with 17 points in 21 minutes.

Point guard, Jeff Teague was also on fire Saturday night penetrating the basket and shooting from the perimeter and making an and-one floater in the fourth quarter to keep Minnesota in the lead. After that, Butler followed behind with a three-pointer, stripped Rockets’ superstar, James Harden, and then passed it to Teague to score another three. This was the first time the Timberwolves had won a playoff game since 2004.

Keys for Game 4

The Timberwolves spotted Houston’s defense and began to strategize to pull off a win to hold on in the series. They shot 50 percent from the floor and went 15 for 27 from three-point range. This could give Minnesota the spark that they needed in order to win the next few games to knock Houston out of the playoffs. If the Rockets play with intensity on offense like they have been in the regular season, and re-strategize their defense in order to shut down Towns, then they should be able to finish off the Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves

James Harden playing defense on Towns
(Houston Chronicle)

Harden went 9 for 21 in Saturday’s game; this was a sloppy game for the MVP runner-up. For the first two games, he had a total of 56 points, leading the Rockets with the help of Chris Paul. Paul only had 17 points and six assists on Saturday. If this dynamic duo plays smart on offense, then they will lead their team to the next round. Game 4 will be at Houston on Tuesday, April 23rd.

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Rockets Timberwolves preview

Rockets vs. Timberwolves series preview

The NBA playoffs are finally here. After a tumultuous regular season defined by injuries and shake-ups, we are bringing you some playoff previews before the first round begins.

An eight seed has upset a one seed in the first round only five times in the history of the NBA. The Timberwolves are hoping to make it six after breaking their 14-year playoff drought. The Rockets, however, are looking to continue their winning ways as they have their eyes on a title.

Here is a summary of the first round series between the No. 1 seed and the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

Regular Season Summary

Houston Rockets

The Rockets finished the 2017-18 season with the best record in the league, at 65-17.

Their offense was nothing short of prolific as they made their way to clinching the West’s top seed. Houston was first in 3-pointers (both attempted and made), second in points and second in free throws made per game, despite their jump shooting ways.

James Harden, the probable NBA MVP, played out of his mind this season. He collected 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Not to mention he owns all of these stats despite missing 10 regular season games due to knee soreness. The assists are especially surprising because of the addition of Chris Paul, who is one of the premiere passers in the NBA.

Paul and Harden proved any doubters that this combination could not work laughably wrong. Worried that two ball-dominate guards could not operate in the same system, NBA pundits thought the experiment would go horribly wrong, as neither would be able to get enough shots to be productive.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Harden and Paul congratulate each other mid game. (Photo by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

Paul got his, however. He averaged 18.6 points, 7.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, all while missing 24 games due to a multitude of injuries. The third piece of this puzzle, Clint Capela, averaged a double-double. Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza also averaged over 10 points per game in support of the Rockets’ big three.

Houston’s defense was no slouch either. The Rockets rank sixth in defensive rating, with a fifth place finish in steals. They also were in the top half of the league in blocks, opponents’ points off turnovers and opponents’ second chance points.

Being the No. 1 with the best record in the NBA does not lend itself to having many exploitable weaknesses. The most glaring issue, though, is Houston’s reluctancy to share the ball.

The Rockets are 26th in assists, which is decidedly bad. Obviously, it has not hurt them too much, as most every player on the floor can score at will. But the playoffs will test a team’s weaknesses in a way the regular season cannot. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Houston’s main hurdle between them and a trip to the NBA Finals is Golden State, a team that shares the ball more than any other in the league.

Overall, coach Mike D’Antoni’s group has overachieved and then some. The main pieces are all healthy at the right time, and the stage is set for the Rockets to shake the woes that follow them into every NBA playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota, as previously stated, has broken their 14-year long drought, landing the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They had to do so by winning an instant classic, win-or-go-home overtime game against the Denver Nuggets. It is only fitting that in a playoff race as wild as the West’s was this year that the last game of the season would decide the eighth seed.

But the Timberwolves’ season was pretty wild before that last game.

Sitting as high as the fourth seed at the All-Star break, the wheels seemingly came off of Minnesota’s wagon as the rest of the Western Conference gained steam. As they started losing, the rest of the West had no problem racking up their wins and climbing up the standings.

The biggest harbinger of the Timberwolves’ disappointing second half was the loss of Jimmy Butler to a meniscus tear. Butler, at the time of his injury, was averaging the most minutes of any player in the entire league. He ended the season with an average of 36.7 minutes per game.

The problem for Minnesota was that with those minutes, came production. Butler scored 22.2 points per game on the season, almost six points above his career average. He was also the team leader on the defensive side of the court. As a result, the Timberwolves suffered on both ends of the floor when he was not playing.

Karl-Anthony Towns continued to be the brightest spot on the roster. He averaged a double-double at 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. Towns continues to get better defensively, although that is not really saying much as of now. He also posted an impressive 54.5 field goal percentage while shooting 42.1 percent from three.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Jeff Teague shoots over James Harden. (Photo by Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson contributed well, despite their age, and were continuously counted on as huge pieces of the team. The rest of the roster, though, did not impress. Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins’ numbers were down from their career averages, and Jeff Teague was good while he was healthy, but was forced to take a backseat to Butler and Towns.

Finishing seventh in offensive rebounds per game and second in free throw percentage, the Timberwolves proved tough, even when overmatched by more complete teams. They also did not turn the ball over much, at just 12.5 times per game, which was also second-best in the league.

The defense was lackluster at best in Minneapolis. The team’s defensive rating landed them in the bottom 10 at 23rd overall. Cycling through the defensive statistics and seeing where the team finished in each paints a picture of an inconsistent defense. This is exceptionally rare for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau.

More pressing than any other issue that plagued the team throughout the season, though, was the awful bench play.

Minnesota finished dead last in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. They also were in the bottom six in assists, steals and offensive rebounds. This is incredibly bad. The Timberwolves’ starters played more than any other group in the NBA, and it is easy to see why.

Even so, the drought is over, and the Wolves have been playing playoff-type basketball for the entire month of April. They may be tired, but they are ready to give Minnesota fans something to cheer about.

Breakdown and Prediction

Breakdown

Jimmy Butler will have his hands full guarding James Harden, but he may be one of the only defenders in the league who can do so efficiently. Clearly, no one is taking Harden out of a game completely, but he faces one of his toughest matchups here in the first round. This will be the biggest thing to watch as the series progresses.

Houston’s main goal should be to stop Karl-Anthony Towns from putting up the points. It would be a smart bet to take that the Wolves will run their offense through him, playing an inside-out game. Clint Capela will not be able to match his production, with Harden and Chris Paul taking the bulk of the shots. Defending Towns will be their only option in the paint.

Paul versus Jeff Teague is interesting, as both have different preferred scoring methods. Paul favors the mid-range game, while Teague likes to slash to the hoop. The points here should be a wash, but the edge still goes to Paul because of his incredible passing ability.

Wing play favors Houston heavily. Almost everyone on the roster can shoot from distance, and Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson and more will be waiting to pull up. The bench matchup is also a no-brainer. Considering that the Timberwolves have far and away the least productive bench in the NBA, all Houston’s players have to do is show up for the game and they already have the Timberwolves’ bench beaten.

Prediction

The Houston Rockets are a buzz saw, and the Timberwolves, regardless of how great their story is, are on the conveyor belt headed towards it.

Rockets Timberwolves preview

Butler may be one of Harden’s biggest playoff challenges. (Photo by Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

Even if they were not one of the best NBA offenses ever, or slacked on the defensive end of the floor, the Timberwolves are an incomplete team. Thibodeau has always ridden his starters harder than any other coach in the league, but it is a different story when he has no choice but to.

Towns, Butler and the momentum that Minnesota has going into this series will be enough to carry them to one victory. The Rockets, however, seem like an unstoppable force, and it is going to take more than five players to beat them.

In the end, the Wolves’ drought is over, and that is something to celebrate. This team is probably trending upwards, too, if they can pull in some free agents. But the Rockets have their eyes on the prize, and this one should be over shortly.

Rockets in five

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

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NBA MVP candidates

2017-18 NBA MVP candidates

Another wonderful NBA regular season is in the books, and with the Golden State Warriors appearing to be a bit more vulnerable heading into the postseason, unlike recent years, the playoffs should be a joy to watch.

Wednesday’s slate of games gave us a good mix of drama and history. The Minnesota Timberwolves edged out the Denver Nuggets in overtime, 112-106, to clinch their first playoff berth since 2004. They will take on the Houston Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

NBA MVP candidates

Why not average a triple-double for the second consecutive season? (Photo from ESPN)

Markelle Fultz, whose shot appeared to be broken during his rehab, became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. At 19 years and 317 days old, Fultz tallied 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in just 25 minutes. The 130-95 win over Milwaukee was the Sixers 16th straight victory. Philadelphia owns the third seed, and will take on the Miami Heat.

Russell Westbrook became the first player in history to average a triple-double in multiple seasons. Heading into Wednesday’s finale needing 16 boards, Westbrook corralled 20 and also added 19 assists. Whether his teammates let him get a few extra boards or not, this is quite the achievement for The Brodie.

Although most would say the Thunder underperformed considering it took them until Game 81 to clinch a spot in the playoffs despite being relatively injury-free the whole season, they finished as the fourth seed and will take on the Utah Jazz. This means that, for the first time since 2012-13, Carmelo Anthony will be back in the playoffs. In 66 career playoff games, Melo is averaging 25.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. While he may look a tad washed up, “Playoff Melo” could surprise some people.

There are a lot of great storylines heading into the postseason, but today, we will be focusing on the NBA MVP candidates. Let’s take a look back at their seasons and what this past year meant for their overall careers.

James Harden

The overwhelming favorite, James Harden looks to finally win his first MVP trophy. He led the Houston Rockets to a 65-17 record, and scored a league-high 30.4 points per game. His field goal percentage was his best since 2013-14. Harden had the highest win share, which, according to Basketball Reference, is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player. This is the second year in a row in which Harden led the NBA in this category, and the third time in four years.

Harden joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Rick Berry as the only players to average 30 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting 85 percent or better from the free-throw line. The addition of Chris Paul was obviously huge, as the Rockets finished with the 11th highest rated offense in NBA history.

This season marked Harden’s sixth in which he averaged at least 25 points, five assists and four rebounds, while shooting at least 84 percent from the line. This puts him ahead of Jordan for the most all-time. Below is a table which illustrates the top players in this particular category.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25 POINTS, FIVE ASSISTS, FOUR REBOUNDS, WITH A FREE-THROW PERCENTAGE HIGHER THAN 84 PERCENT

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
JAMES HARDEN 6
MICHAEL JORDAN 5
LARRY BIRD 4
OSCAR ROBERTSON 4
STEPHEN CURRY 3
KEVIN DURANT 3

Harden is on a Hall of Fame pace, but needs to show up in the playoffs, as he has tendencies to shrink under the big lights. Only time will tell. Houston has a tough task ahead of them in the first round against the Timberwolves with a healthy Jimmy Butler.

Lebron James

NBA MVP candidates

Bow down to the King. (Photo from NBA.com)

For the first time in his legendary career, LeBron James played all 82 games. The King led the league in total points, field goals made and minutes during his 15th season at age 33.

 

His 9.1 assists per game were the most in his career, eclipsing last year’s average of 8.7. James also averaged 8.6 rebounds, which is tied for the most he has ever averaged in a season.

James became the first player ever to average 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 54 percent shooting or better. He had 10 triple-doubles in which he shot 50 percent or better, which was more than anyone in the league.

2017-18 was The King’s 14th season in which he averaged 25 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. The next closest is Oscar Robertson with nine. Michael Jordan only had three seasons.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25-6-6

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
LEBRON JAMES 14
OSCAR ROBERTSON 9
LARRY BIRD 4
MICHAEL JORDAN 3

While he may not catch Jordan in titles, James, by the numbers, is clearly the best basketball player to ever walk the planet. When you think of a complete player, you want someone who can efficiently score, pass and rebound the basketball.

Below is a table of players who, while shooting 50 percent or better, averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists across an entire season. No one else in the history of the sport has done this more than once, and James just did it for the fifth time.

NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 25-7-7 ON 50 PERCENT SHOOTING OR BETTER.

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
LEBRON JAMES 5
LARRY BIRD 1
MICHAEL JORDAN 1
OSCAR ROBERTSON 1

Anthony Davis

When DeMarcus Cousins went down, it appeared the Pelicans’ playoff chances were in jeopardy. Instead of panicking, New Orleans went 48-34, which was their best record since the rebrand. They finished the season strong, winning nine of 13, and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Davis, for the third time in his six-year career, led the NBA in blocks per game with 2.6. He averaged a career-high 28.1 points, and tallied along 11.1 rebounds with 2.3 assists. Davis also shot 82.8 percent from the charity stripe, joining Bob McAdoo as the only two players in NBA history to average at least 28 points and 11 rebounds while shooting better than 80 percent from the free-throw line, as well as posting a field goal percentage of at least 50 percent.

Below is a list of players who averaged at least 24 points and 10 rebounds, with a field goal percentage of 49 percent or better, and a free-throw percentage of at least 75 percent.

NO. OF SEASONS WITH AT LEAST 24 POINTS AND 10 REBOUNDS PER GAME WHILE SHOOTING AT LEAST 49 PERCENT FROM THE FIELD AND 75 PERCENT FROM FREE-THROW LINE

PLAYER NO. OF SEASONS
KARL MALONE 5
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR 4
ANTHONY DAVIS 4
CHARLES BARKLEY 3

Although he has yet to win a playoff game, Anthony Davis is on a historic pace to be one of the best bigs of all time. The Pelicans face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

 

Featured image by ClutchPoints

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NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Why each Western Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

It truly is the “Wild Wild West” when it comes to the hunt for the NBA Finals.

We are only six days from the start of the playoffs, and seeding is anything but concrete. Every team, with the exception of the top two, could potentially end up anywhere. The third-seeded Trailblazers and the Nuggets, the first team out, are only four games apart.

Regardless of seeding, however, every team that makes the playoffs has the same goal: becoming NBA champions.

Knowing that the seedings can, and probably will change over the remaining two to four games for each potential playoff contender, it is time to take a look at what can propel them towards or keep them from winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.

No. 9 seed (first team out) – Denver Nuggets

While the Nuggets may be on the outside looking in for now, it is worth mentioning that they would safely be a playoff team if they were in the East.

Alas, they are not, and Denver is fighting for its playoff life with every game.

The Nuggets young core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic are electric, and can be good for a very long time. Their positioning in some of the most important basketball stats is eye-opening.

Denver is sixth in points per game, seventh in rebounds per game (thanks to their fantastic length and speed) and fifth in assists per game. This makes them a scary matchup if they do claw their way into the postseason. Being able to score, rebound and share the ball consistently will make it hard for any team to dig its way out of an early hole, if they find themselves in one.

The youth and athleticism will also wear opposing teams out in a seven-game series. The Nuggets love to turn the transition game into a track meet after a steal, but also excel in post-up situations if it is called for, thanks to Jokic’s talents.

For all of these reasons, and the fact that some higher-seeded teams could overlook Denver due to their late season struggles, they could surprise the NBA all the way to the finals. Once the finals roll around, anything can happen, especially if a plucky eight seed manages to punch their ticket.

What will keep them from achieving those dreams, however, is their lackluster defense. With a defense good for 24th in the NBA, that probably will not translate well to the playoffs. As impressive as a sixth-ranked points per game offense is, it does not mean much if Denver cannot stop the best teams in the league from scoring.

The Nuggets certainly cannot go shot-for-shot with the Rockets or the Warriors, and the inability to overpower these teams defensively could spell an early exit.

No. 8 seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves’ season has been a bit of a roller coaster. At times, they have seemed like not only locks for a playoff spot, but true contenders. At others, they have massively underachieved, falling to legitimately bad teams.

Surprisingly for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, the offense has been the strength for Minnesota. They are ranked seventh in points per game and leaning heavily on the bona fide stardom of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns can score inside, outside and distribute the ball well. Jamal Crawford has seemingly tapped into the fountain of youth to become an important part of the team. Before his injury, Jimmy Butler was averaging the most minutes per game in the NBA, and backing up that playing time with some fantastic numbers.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Karl-Anthony Towns will have to keep up his dominant performance if the Wolves hope to win a title. (Photo by Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Their star power is where their title hopes live and die. The Wolves are well-coached, and they have the ability to take over any game at most any moment. If Butler gets his pre-injury step back, then his iso scoring ability will be too much for almost anyone guarding him. Odds are, opposing teams will have to create a mismatch elsewhere on the court to stop him, which the Timberwolves can and will take advantage of. If they can find a way to make that work over multiple series, then there is no reason Minnesota cannot take everyone by surprise and walk home with the title.

Again, this Thibodeau team surprisingly goes heavily against the mold previously casted by his other teams. Normally known for their shutdown defense, this Thibodeau team is flat-out average defensively. Barely outside the bottom 10 in terms of defensive ranking, mediocre defense is not something to get excited about in the playoffs.

In a case of strengths also being weaknesses, pure star power alone cannot get the job done for an average rebounding and defensive team. Add the fact that their bench ranks dead last in court minutes and offensive production, and leaning on Butler and Towns at (hopefully) full strength will be Minnesota’s option.

The Wolves can absolutely get out of the first round if they do not have to see the Rockets, but even that would require immense luck and unbelievable game planning. Sustaining a playoff run on two players and no bench does not make a true finals contender.

No. 7 seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: The “OK3” have the ability to take over any game.

However, the Thunder have been underwhelming this season. It is hard to come up with a legitimate argument for why Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony could not figure it out and combine for 70-plus points on any given night. While Melo has lost a step and struggles to move without the ball, he can still fill it up. George’s defense has overshadowed his offense, which is impressive. And Westbrook is Westbrook, no explanation needed.

This team was not built for an 82-game season, it was built for the playoffs. It is important to remember that none of their big three have won a title, and they would all love nothing more than to check off that particular box. With Adams as a reliable rebounder and scorer in the paint, the Thunder even have a bail-out option if George and Anthony’s floor spacing is not working well and Westbrook’s lane to the hoop are clogged.

Their ability to win a title rests solely on their potential. It has been a potential that NBA fans have not seen. But again, this team screams, “NBA Finals contenders” on paper. With good game plans by Scott Brooks, they can absolutely reach that peak if it all finally comes together in the playoffs.

Similar to the Timberwolves’ problem, though, the Thunder’s bench is bad. Oklahoma City will absolutely have to ride the three big names through the playoffs. If we see more of what we have seen over the regular season in the playoffs, then a disappointing end to the season is inevitable.

Their defense is 10th in the league, mostly thanks to George and Westbrook’s ball-stealing abilities. Oklahoma City will be rolling the dice to see if they can rob enough possessions to win games. Many teams they might play throughout the playoffs will be teams that play fast and are not too worried about turnovers because of their scoring ability. Those steals will have to turn into points, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

No. 6 seed – San Antonio Spurs

Two words sum up the reason the Spurs can win the 2018 NBA Finals: Gregg Popovich.

That is an oversimplification, but it is not necessarily completely untrue. Popovich has never had less to work with as the Spurs streak of 50-win seasons will be coming to a close after 18 seasons.

With a 40-year-old Manu Ginobili, a Tony Parker that just cannot do what he used to and no Tim Duncan, the Spurs sit at the sixth seed. This without even mentioning the never-ending Kawhi Leonard saga that has plagued the team.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

It looks like Greg Popovich and the Spurs will be advancing to the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. (Photo by Jim Cowsert/Associated Press)

The defense is some of the best in the league, and the 3-point percentage is excellent due to disciplined shot selection. Popovich can outcoach almost anyone in the league with just about any roster. That kind of thing is a huge difference maker in the playoffs. The Spurs do not need to win every game, just four out of seven. That is more than doable. With their winning culture and fantastic pedigree, if the Spurs reach the finals, it would be hard to truly see them as underdogs.

The age here is huge though. The team is old, and the young players are inexperienced. Their biggest playoff x-factor would be LaMarcus Aldridge, and teams have been able to shut him down in the past.

The Spurs were swept last year in the conference finals without Leonard. While it seems as if they have found an identity without him this year, it is going to be hard to make a meaningful finals run without the two-way superstar. Teams simply are not scared of the Spurs this year, and intimidation was a big part of their game.

San Antonio will have no choice but to overachieve if they want to win it all.

No. 5 seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Speaking of overachieving, the Pelicans are doing a whole lot with very little.

After DeMarcus Cousins went down with an achilles injury, most NBA fans left the Pelicans for dead. But Anthony Davis has put the team on his unibrow and taken the team to new heights. Averaging 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, with multiple 50-point games mixed in, the identity of this team is clear. The Pelicans want to give Davis the ball and figure it out from there.

New Orleans has fantastic shooting stats, stemming from their ability to pass up good shots for great ones. Their 3-point percentage ranks in the top half of the league, but they do not take very many, which lends itself well to high percentages. The defense is also good. The balance of this team spells hope for a run to the NBA Finals.

But Davis alone will not be enough to carry them to the finals, let alone win them. All an opposing team has to do is find a way to take him out of the game. This is no easy task, but these will be the best teams in the NBA the Pelicans will be playing against.

The fundamental basketball is sound, but pairing it with the run-and-gun offenses they will be facing will surely overpower New Orleans. If the Pelicans still had Cousins, this would be a completely different story. But as the team stands now, they might have the least chance to win the Finals, regardless of their fifth seed.

No. 4 seed – Utah Jazz

The defensive prowess of this team is their strongest suit. The defense of the Jazz alone can get them out of the first round.

With a scoring threat led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and the improved shooting stroke of Ricky Rubio, Utah is a scary matchup. Coupled with their late season push, this team is coming together at the right time.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has been a driving force in Utah’s playoff push. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

The passing and ball movement is fantastic. They have a great inside-out game, and they will be counting on teams underestimating them once the playoffs roll around. It was not too long ago that the Jazz were on the outside looking in. Now in the fourth spot in the West, they have legitimized themselves and are forcing teams to take them seriously.

The core might just be too young to make a deep run though. Leaning on defense is a tough sell when matching them up against the Rockets or the Warriors. Teams with their jump-shooting abilities thrive on finding the holes and exploiting them constantly.

Regardless of where they sit when the playoffs begin, the first-round matchup featuring the Jazz will be must-watch basketball for any NBA fan. This could be the beginning of something special, even if they do not have the juice to win it all.

No. 3 seed – Portland Trail Blazers

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combine for one of the best backcourts in the game right now. The emergence of Jusuf Nurkic as a rock-solid post player has given the team a great option down low. The bench is fantastic and the wing players are some of the best three-and-D men in the NBA

One could accuse the Trail Blazers of playing above their ceiling, but that is a hard argument to sustain given their records against the other best teams in the league. The defense is also playing nice, making Portland a complete team.

Being fourth in rebounds per game also guarantees them enough possessions to get their shooters going, which is essential in their offense. Portland can shoot themselves out of almost any kind of deficit they find themselves in. That kind of pedigree can win a title in any era.

However, playoff basketball is about adjusting when other teams take away their strengths.

The Trail Blazers are dead last in assists per game. It has not hurt them too much in the regular season, but if opposing defenses can take away their iso scoring game, then they are going to try to force the ball into tight spaces, resulting in turnovers.

Selfish basketball can win a team their division, or even their conference, but it does not lend itself well to winning a playoff series or a title. Portland will have no choice but to work to break themselves of that identity and find ways to move off the ball if they want to make it out of the Western Conference.

No. 2 seed – Golden State Warriors

The only thing more well-documented than Golden State’s struggles in the 2017-18 season is their dominance over the past three years.

Banged up, reeling and playing uncharacteristically down to their opponents’ level, the Warriors have let their death grip on the West slide. But this does not spell disaster for Golden State.

Until further notice, they are still the reigning Western Conference champions with a great coaching staff and four All-Stars in their starting five. It looks like the Warriors should be at full strength by the second round of the playoffs.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

The Warriors might have to play the first round of the playoffs without All-Star Stephen Curry. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

If Stephen Curry comes back at full strength and Kevin Durant continues the current tear he is on, then the Warriors are still the scariest team in the West. Much like the Spurs, Golden State is coasting on reputation until they have to back it up once the playoffs start.

This roster, including a great bench, can own any team at a moment’s notice, no questions asked. They also know their opponents well enough to expose any weaknesses at any position. No one in the NBA community is going to be surprised if they represent the Western Conference for a fourth straight year. The Rockets will probably be their toughest test, so if they do make it to the NBA Finals, expect the dynasty to be official and unequivocal.

However, Houston is the tallest of orders for this team right now. Golden State has made it known that they are vulnerable. Again, the banged up roster could be a problem for the team. Sharing the ball is key to the Warriors’ success, and without shooters like Curry, an extra pass could lead to a turnover. It could also lead to missed shots, which is more of a problem this year than it has been in previous years.

This is because their defense has gone downhill in the worst kind of way. As far as points allowed goes, Golden State is 17th in the league.

Giving opposing teams confidence is the very last thing the Warriors want to do. Golden State thrives on putting their boot on teams’ necks early and applying pressure with a barrage of made shots.

They are not done until they are done, but the playoffs will undoubtedly be more of a test this year than they have been. And the NBA is all the better for it.

No. 1 seed – Houston Rockets

The offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets has earned the top spot through some amazing play. They deserve the home-court advantage and then some.

They are second in points per game, first in 3-pointers made, and their defense ranks in the top 10 in terms of points allowed. The Chris Paul and James Harden experiment has paid off handsomely, and the bench is rallying around the exciting brand of basketball that Houston plays night in and night out.

Even if the defense was truly awful, it would not matter due to the Rockets’ 3-point shooting abilities. Clint Capela also collects enough offensive rebounds to solidify himself as a legitimate playoff threat.

This team can dethrone the Warriors. They have beaten them in the regular season, even when the Warriors were at full strength. If Paul, Harden and Capela are on the floor, the Rockets cannot seem to lose. If they do make the finals over Golden State, go ahead and place your bets, because they can run away with it.

The only real problem with this team is their reliance on jump shooting. For Houston to thrive, shots have to fall. Any NBA fan knows that teams have nights where the ball just does not go in the basket. It is hard to believe that the Rockets would fall victim to enough of those games to remove them from title contention, but it is entirely possible.

If the Rockets can get the Warrior-sized monkey off of their backs and shake their reputation of fizzling out in the playoffs, the NBA Finals may very well be theirs to lose.

 

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

The NBA playoffs are almost upon us. Scheduled to start on April 14, the playoff picture is anything but concrete.

Injuries, fatigue, rest and a general agreement that seeding doesn’t really matter once the playoffs start, are all signs that anything could happen. The top two teams in each conference are surely safe, but the three through eight seeds are most certainly up for grabs.

With that in mind, here are some predictions on how the playoff seeding might shake out.

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

Eight seeds are the hardest to predict, for obvious reasons. The Heat, however seem as if they’ll wrap up a spot in the playoffs.

playoffs

The Miami Heat are an unexpected playoff contender this year. (Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

Their closest competition is the Detroit Pistons. Considering both teams’ remaining schedule is very comparable, the safe bet here is Miami. They are a more complete team with a battle-tested coach.

The Pistons would have to win all 10 of their remaining games against teams with losing records, and chalk up some upset wins, too. Even then, the Heat would probably have to drop some games they’re supposed to win. It seems as if the Blake Griffin pickup won’t be enough this year.

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

The Wizards are a solid team, featuring fundamental play and a tough coaching matchup. They currently sit as the East’s fifth seed, but their schedule is ridiculously difficult down the home stretch.

11 of the Wizards’ 17 remaining games come against teams with winning records. With star point guard John Wall still potentially up to four weeks away from returning to the lineup, the Wizards are going to drop games. Washington is 10-6 since Wall had knee surgery.

Bradley Beal can certainly pick up some slack with his fantastic shooting ability. But the Wizards will need more help than that to stay in the fifth slot, or rise in the standings.

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

With a pretty even schedule against winning and losing teams remaining, the Bucks should sit in the seven seed.

playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks look for a second straight playoff berth. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The young team, led by the Greek Freak, has been a mini-surprise in the 2017-2018 season. The Bucks fired their head coach in the middle of the season, causing some to leave the team for dead. But under interim head coach Jon Horst, they have found an identity.

That identity is give the ball to Antetokounmpo at every opportunity, sit back, and watch the fireworks. If teams find a way to guard Giannis, their three-point game is solid enough to rack up the wins necessary to play some springtime ball.

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers, who had the most games in the NBA after the All-Star break, still have 19 games remaining.

Their path to the playoffs, however, is shockingly easy. Only six of their next 19 games come against teams with a winning record. With the youth on this team, fatigue will more than likely not be a problem down the stretch.

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the inexperience and injury history on the team. The major pieces on the 76ers have never played a minute of playoff basketball. The players who have been to the playoffs are veterans, which is a nice way of saying that they’re old.

But these are mainly problems they’ll face once the playoffs roll around. The push to secure seeding shouldn’t be an issue for Philadelphia.

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

There’s no reason to think that the Pacers can’t continue to surprise the league. Their schedule is undeniably tough going forward, but the team has continued to manufacture wins.

Victor Oladipo is the focal point here. His meteoric rise during the 2017-2018 campaign is the largest part of the team’s success. Bogdanovic, Turner and Jefferson are all solid role-players, but Oladipo’s 24 points per game are still catching opposing teams off guard.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers made it to the 2016 NBA Finals, despite not being the top seed. (Photo by Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

When discussing why the Cavaliers won’t fall in the standings, it would suffice to just write the words, “LeBron James.”

Apart from James, though, the new pieces are fitting nicely in Cleveland. They have not lived up to the sky-high expectations formed just before the All-Star break, but that would have been nearly impossible. But, the team has been, without question, an upgrade from the previous iteration.

Cleveland’s schedule is fairly even going forward. Judging from their tumultuous season so far, the Cavs will probably lose some games they are supposed to win, and win some games they might be slated to lose.

With their experience, drive to prove themselves, and The King, the third seed is more than likely where they will stand going into the playoffs.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

The Celtics have the best coach in the league, by almost anyone’s measurement. Kyrie Irving is having a fantastic season, and their roster is complimentary to the team’s play style from top to bottom.

Offense has been a huge issue for Boston, recently. They currently sit at 16th in NBA offensive rankings. That’s hardly what one would expect from the team with the East’s second best record. But these shortcomings speak to the Celtics’ strengths more than anything.

The defense is fantastic. When watching Boston play, the team defense is undeniable. Coach Brad Stevens has a real commitment to the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. That is what will keep Boston at the second seed.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

DeMar Derozan has led the Raptors to the East’s best record. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The decision on who would hold the Eastern Conference’s number one seed came down to who would win the remaining matchups between the Celtics and Raptors. The race for the top spot going into the playoffs could very well come down to those two games.

But, more faith needs to be put in the resume Toronto has built during the season.

The Raptors own the NBA’s fourth best offense and the third best defense. Coach Dwane Casey has clearly reached a new level. He’s reached these players and motivated them in a way that’s evident during every game.

The stars, Derozan and Lowry are clear leaders. Serge Ibaka has accepted his role as a third option. The bench is deep, and dangerous.

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

Yet again, the decision here came from examining remaining strength of schedule. The Los Angeles Clippers the Utah Jazz lose that particular race.

playoffs

The young core of the Denver Nuggets has been incredibly effective this season. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

Not to sell them short, however, the young talent on the Nuggets has definitely impressed. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic create a solid core that can keep them in any given game.

A paint-focused offense, and a serviceable defense should secure them a spot in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Los Angeles has experienced roster shake-ups, and Utah is one of the streakiest teams in the league.

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota was once as high as the number three seed. But losing Jimmy Butler to a meniscus injury has plunged them into a potential bubble team. Being that the West is so highly contested, that has proved to be a killer.

Butler was averaging the most minutes in the NBA, contributing 22.2 points, 5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Having a star go down with an injury would be a problem for any team. But it seems like this particular loss couldn’t have come to a more impactful player at a more important time.

The Timberwolves should have him back by the time the playoffs roll around, which is great news. Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to keep the ship afloat until then, however.

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been trending downwards in the past 10 games. They are 6-4 in these contests, needing a 43-point performance by Westbrook in a come back win against the lowly Phoenix Suns.

playoffs

The “OK3” have underachieved, but they can all still be a force to be reckoned with. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)

Having them at the sixth seed is merely a belief in their defense and star power. The “OK3” are a force to be reckoned with in any game. George, Anthony and Westbrook hardly ever all contribute at a high level within the same game. But, all three of them are capable of going off, even if it is at the expense of the other two’s stat line.

Billy Donovan, once a scapegoat for the team’s unimpressive showings, has seemed to figure out the right balance. The bench is irrelevant here, as having three Type-A personalities in the same starting lineup dictate how the contest will be played.

Faith needs to be put in these three players, as none of them will accept missing the playoffs entirely.

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis has been an absolute assassin in recent weeks. He’s had six 40-plus point performances since the beginning of February. All six of those games featured 10 or more rebounds.

Since DeMarcus Cousins went down, it’s no question that Davis has accepted is role as the number one, two and three options for the Pelicans. But it is a little ridiculous to think he can keep putting up these kinds of numbers every night.

If he has an off night, it’s hard to trust Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to will New Orleans to a win by themselves. With the kind of drive he’s been showing, however, Davis can keep them no lower than the number five seed.

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

Similar to the Cavaliers, all one needs to say here is, “Gregg Popovich” to inspire confidence in the Spurs.

playoffs

Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich will no doubt be the determining factors regarding the Spurs’ seeding. (Photo by Darren Abate/Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games since the beginning of the NBA season. He said in an interview on Wednesday that he hopes to return to the lineup this season. When asked for a specific timetable, he only said that he wants to return “soon.”

Soon means nothing, but if he does get the opportunity to return, don’t expect he’ll need an adjustment period. Kawhi is a premiere two-way talent that has been focused on playing since he left the lineup.

Airing on the side of a hiccup-less re-introduction to the starting lineup, the Spurs can hold their ground and even rise in the standings.

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

Damian Lillard is now in the MVP conversation. CJ McCollum is capable of scoring 50 points if he has the ball enough. Aminu and Turner are solid wings that the team can lean on in the case of a shooting drought.

Portland notably upset the Warriors right before the All-Star break. They lost the first meeting, though, and have not been able to beat Houston yet. Anyone else in the league is on notice when playing the Trailblazers. The offense is great, the defense is quick, and the schedule is manageable.

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

The Rockets embody the hope of every team that the Warriors can be overtaken in the Western Conference playoffs. And they still can.

The strength of schedule is, again, what makes the difference here. The Rockets play 12 teams with winning records, to the Warriors’ 11. Both teams play 7 teams with losing records. Since the schedules are so comparable, the trust has to be put in the defending champions.

Houston has an incredible three-point game, and the rest of the offense is only slightly less polished. The addition of Chris Paul has been revelation, and Clint Capela has risen to new heights. James Harden is running away with the MVP race.

But over their remaining games, the four Warriors All-Stars will intimidate opposing offenses slightly more.

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

As stated above, intimidation is the main reason the Warriors will probably sit in the West’s top spot heading into the playoffs.

Golden State are champions until they lose, and losing is the only thing at which the NBA can count on the Warriors being bad. Thinking that this particular team has grown complacent and aren’t concerned with owning the one seed, is a mistake.

playoffs

Golden State still has the most impressive roster in the NBA, regardless of their record. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

All four of the team’s superstars are hyper-competitive, and Houston taking away their spotlight has surely made them hungrier to assert their dominance over the conference. The Rockets and Warriors are certainly on a collision-course, but the Warriors will probably still own the regular season.

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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Jimmy Butler injury

How long can the T-Wolves survive without Jimmy Butler?

In Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets, Jimmy Butler suffered what the Timberwolves are calling a “meniscal injury” to his right knee.

With just over three minutes to go in the third quarter against the team with the league’s best record, Butler was fighting for a rebound in the post. Directly before he fired a pass to forward Taj Gibson, Butler took an awkward step and fell to the ground in pain, clutching his right knee.

Jimmy Butler injury

Rockets trainers and Chris Paul rush to see if Butler is okay, moments after injuring his right knee. (Photo by Michael Wyke/Associated Press)

While team doctors rushed onto the court, Butler was clearly in pain, judging by his contorted facial expression. He could not leave the floor under his own power, and it seemed as if one of Minnesota Timberwolves fans’ biggest nightmares had become a reality.

Due to the clutching of the knee, and the fact that he needed help off of the court, many thought the injury was surely an ACL tear. That would have been sure-fire season-ender for one of the best guards in the NBA.

Instead, the Timberwolves PR account released a statement Saturday at 3:45 ET that the injury was to his meniscus. They gave no timetable for his return.

Being that the injury isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Butler’s season, how effective can Minnesota be without him?

Possible return

Most meniscus injuries take four to six weeks to rehab, if it is not serious. That would put his return date somewhere between March 24 and April 7. If the injury is not severe, then Butler would be ready to play at least one week before the playoffs are slated to begin.

Let’s assume the worst for a moment, saying Butler cannot return until April 7. The Timberwolves will have two games before the playoffs’ start date on April 14. That gives him two “rehab” games to get reacclimated to the team before the important games start. Two games is far from ideal, but it is much better than simply tossing him into NBA playoff basketball without time to get a handle on the pace.

In the best-case scenario, Butler could return to the court during the March 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies. That would be doubly useful. His first game could come against a subpar team, meaning the Wolves could win easily despite restricted minutes. Plus, he would have eight games to get into playoff shape.

We will know more about his return date soon, but for now all we know is that the Timberwolves certainly plan on having him return for their playoff run.

Expectations without Butler

Minnesota is currently the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Their surprisingly efficient offensive game plan has propelled them forward in a way that wasn’t supposed to come to fruition until next season. The problem is, however, much of that success was thanks to Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler injury

Karl-Anthony Towns will likely become the focal point of the Wolves’ offense. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Before his injury, he was putting up 22.2 points per game, along with 5.0 assists and 5.4 rebounds. The biggest loss to the team, though, will be his minutes. Jimmy “Buckets” was averaging 37.1 minutes per game, which led all NBA players. Replacing someone who is on the court more than any other individual in the entire league will not be easy, regardless of their offensive output.

Tom Thibodeau likes to ride his starters hard. That has been his identity since he started coaching. But Minnesota’s relatively weak bench made it less of a strategy and more of a necessity. Considering Butler’s consistent offense and his admirable defense, he is a natural choice to eat up minutes for any coach.

But without him, it is likely that Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Shabazz Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will all have no choice but to help pick up the slack. Thibodeau is capable of creating lineups that will somewhat mask Butler’s absence, but players will have to shift positions often.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still having a terrific season, and the offense can shift its focus to him. Teague can play shooting guard, and Crawford can help stop the bleeding in the backcourt. With the talent on the team, it is probably unwise to bet the Timberwolves fall out of the playoffs completely.

Schedule

That being said, Minnesota has a rough stretch of games during the period they can count on Butler being out of the lineup.

If he returns on March 26, then nine of their 11 games without him will be against teams above .500. This includes a five game stretch in which they play the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets. These are not only playoff teams, but both favorite and dark horse contenders to reach the NBA Finals.

Jimmy Butler injury

Butler gets helped off the court by his teammates. (Photo by The Houston Chronicle)

There is a very real chance that Minnesota could drop all five of those games. Depending on what the rest of the teams below them in the standings do, that could just be enough to put them on the bubble. Being that the Timberwolves have less games to play than any other team in the league, this could dig them a hole that might be hard to get out of.

The good news is that after that stretch is done, the Wolves will play the Grizzlies twice, along with the Hawks, Mavericks and Lakers. These are all teams well below the .500 mark. Throw in a game with the Jazz and two games agains the Nuggets (which they will more than likely split) and that could give them life.

It’s not out of line to say their seed will go as Butler’s injury goes. If his knee is worse than the Wolves feared, they might be fighting for a spot. If it is routine, then Minnesota will probably end what is currently the longest playoff draught in basketball.

 

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NBA’s biggest second half storylines

The All-Star break has finally come and gone. The second half of the NBA season starts Thursday evening.

This is the part of the regular season NBA fans look forward to. Some teams will be jockeying for seeding, and others will make the push to squeak in to the playoffs. These are the games that feel like they mean something, apart from potential playoff matchups.

So let’s dive right in to the NBA’s biggest second half storylines.

Games remaining

Okay, it’s misleading to call it the second “half.” This NBA season was heavily front-loaded in a way it hasn’t been in years. This could be the reason Jimmy Butler decided not to play a minute in the All-Star Game. That, plus the fact that he’s leading the league in minutes per game.

NBA Second Half

Jimmy Butler got the rest he asked for, but is catching flack for taking up an All-Star roster spot. (Photo by Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY Sports)

Every NBA team’s remaining schedule averages out to feature 25.3 remaining games. So 56.7, or 69 percent, of this season’s games were played before the All-Star break. All research indicates players actually enjoy playing the majority of their games before the break. This gives them the opportunity to rest up for the playoff push.

This rest is absolutely more important to some teams than to others. Take into account injuries, fatigue and minutes played, that short break could make the difference between an eight seed and watching the playoffs from the couch.

Longest and shortest remaining schedules

The Philadelphia 76ers, currently the the seven seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs have the most games left to play at 27. The Minnesota Timberwolves only have 21 games. It’s interesting that these two teams would be the extremes, considering their structures.

The 76ers are not only young, but they are notoriously injury-prone. This is the first season that Embiid has been able to stay on the court, Ben Simmons has finally been able to play after missing all of last season, and it is still very much up in the air whether or not Markelle Fultz can make his debut this year. But if they stay healthy, that youth and lack of fatigue could propel them upward in the standings.

The Timberwolves play hard, and they play often. As previously stated, Butler leads the league, playing 37.3 minutes per game. Karl-Anthony Towns plays 35.1 minutes, Andrew Wiggins plays 36.1 minutes, and the 32-year-old Taj Gibson plays 33.6 minutes. This is due not only to lack of bench depth, but also Tom Thibodeau’s starter-reliant coaching style.

Depending on one’s point of view, this either gives NBA fans more or less to look forward to.

Dallas Mavericks troubles

Over the All-Star weekend Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on Dr. J’s podcast, “losing is our best option.” At 18-40, it certainly seems as if they are embracing the “tanking” philosophy. For those who are unaware, “tanking” is the not-so-subtle art of losing to secure a better pick in the draft.

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner and outspoken enemy of tanking, doled out a huge penalty for the statement on Wednesday. Cuban was fined $600,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league,” supposedly for the comment and as a retroactive punishment for lack of effort on the season.

NBA Second Half

Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 on Wednesday. (Photo by Getty Images)

Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing for which the Mavericks and Cuban are under fire. News also broke Thursday night about a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal within the organization. There have been multiple reports of inappropriate behavior, along with Cuban admitting that he kept on a Mavericks reporter after “two separate incidents of domestic violence.”

The fallout from the misconduct allegations has yet to be seen, but it’s something to keep an eye on regarding the future of the franchise. It will also be interesting to see how many games Dallas wins after being exposed for exhibiting low effort.

Cavs-Warriors Part IV?

Cavaliers

The Cavaliers were re-energized by a huge roster shake-up at the NBA trade deadline. Going into the second half, they are on a four game win streak. One win came with the pre-deadline roster, one came with a short-handed roster before the newly-acquired players were eligible to play, and two came with the new look roster.

The team is slightly younger, more defensively-minded and much quicker than its previous iteration. Two games is hardly a sample size at all, however. Common sense says they should continue to trend upwards, but they only have 24 games to build playoff-level chemistry.

Their main competition on the road to the NBA Finals are the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. These teams have the number one and number two records in the East, respectively. Cleveland made short work of both of these teams in last year’s playoffs. Toronto, however has grown as a team, and Kyrie Irving went from playing against Boston, to playing for them.

NBA Second Half

Golden State’s Draymond Green coaches the Warriors during their game against the Suns. (Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Warriors

Golden State has been having some struggles of late. They are currently the number two seed in the West. They are second to the Houston Rockets, their main competition. The Warriors are 7-5 in their last 12 games; hardly what fans have come to expect from a team with this much talent.

As a method of engaging his team, Steve Kerr even let his players coach during a win against the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns. This decision garnered much criticism from NBA players and pundits alike. They lost their next game against the Portland Trailblazers, despite Kevin Durant’s 50 points.

It’s a safe bet to pencil these two teams in for an historic fourth straight finals matchup. However, they both have more to prove before switching that pencil in for a pen.

Major awards

The second half of the season is where the NBA awards races really start to take shape. These awards are hotly contested this season, and it might just come down to the wire before voters decide for whom they will cast their ballot.

MVP

James Harden is currently the front-runner for the NBA MVP award. Fitting, since he was second in voting last year, but had the misfortune of being up against Russell Westbrook’s historic season.

LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant are also in contention. The voting will come down to their teams’ records and, of course, each player’s individual contribution. To see a more in-depth breakdown of the race, see the dedicated article here.

Rookie of the Year

This award is essentially a two man race.

Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points per game for the surging Utah Jazz. They have won 11 in a row in a push for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. He’s playing heavy minutes and contributing 3.5 rebounds and assists per game. But, what’s got the attention of the NBA is his athleticism. Winning the dunk contest as a replacement will also probably sway voters. If he continues scoring in the second half and dish out more assists, this award might be his.

His main competition is the 76ers’ Ben Simmons. Simmons is good for 16.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per night. The points are obviously lower than Mitchell’s but the assist and rebound numbers are impressive for a rookie. Those numbers can and should come with the territory of being a 6-foot-10 point guard, however.

The problem is, in a league so in love with the three-pointer, he never shoots the long-range shot. He has taken just 10 threes, and has made none of them. Another potential reason Mitchell could sneak ahead in the polls is that his assist numbers are so low because he has one of the league’s best passers, Ricky Rubio, playing point guard on his team.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kevin Durant is squarely in contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors. His stats aren’t massively impressive, but the effort that does not show up on the stat sheet are the real reason he is in the conversation. Durant averages 0.8 steals per game, and 1.9 blocks per game with the Warriors. Being on a premiere defensive team also helps his cause.

NBA Second Half

Paul George, contender for Defensive Player of the Year, guards Victor Oladipo. (Photo by Getty Images)

Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder is the biggest roadblock between Durant and Defensive Player honors. George leads the league in steals, which is arguably the most important defensive stat. Robbing teams of possessions is a major key to winning games, and George does it more than any other player. His blocks sit at just 0.5 per game, but consider that he does most of his defending around the three-point line. That doesn’t lend itself to racking up blocks.

Coach of the Year

The obvious candidates for this award are Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Houston’s Mike D’Antoni.

They both are the owners of the best records in their conference. This is significant because neither of their teams were expected to be the number one seed going into the second half of the season. The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors were supposed to have those honors. But neither coach need to own the one seed going into the playoffs to win the award.

D’Antoni’s Rockets have a prolific offense, and he has also managed to seamlessly integrate Chris Paul into the offense. The defense on his team is an afterthought, but it always has been on D’Antoni-coached teams. Casey’s Raptors own a top-10 defense and a top-10 offense. The roster has stayed intact through a tumultuous trade deadline, and the chemistry on the team shows from top to bottom.

Erik Spoelstra is also making his case for Coach of the Year. Miami currently sits at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. With a less-than-stellar roster, if he can continue to manufacture wins through pure coaching, expect to hear his name when this award is mentioned.

Featured image by Winslow Townson/Associated Press

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Jimmy Butler All-Star

Jimmy Butler was the real winner of NBA All-Star Weekend

Quavo won the the Ruffles Celebrity All-Star game MVP. Spencer Dinwiddie won the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. Devin Booker won the JBL Three-Point Contest. Donovan Mitchell won the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest. LeBron James won his 3rd All-Star Game MVP dropping 29 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. All that stuff is great.

The real winner is Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Jimmy Butler. Jimmy Butler was an All-Star this year for fourth year in a row. He is averaging 22.4 points per game, 5.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.9 steals. He is one of the best two-way players in the league, capable of scoring 30 points while locking up the other teams best wing or guard at the same time.

None of those points are why Jimmy Butler is the real winner. He is the real winner because he didn’t have to do ANYTHING during All-Star weekend. He got to be in Los Angeles, CA where the weather was in the 70s over the weekend.

He got to clown around with TNT reporter David Aldridge and Toronto Raptors’ All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

He got to practice handshakes with a young fan before the game.

He got courtside seats to watch some of the best athletes in the world duke it out in the most competitive All-Star game in recent memory. Mind you, Jimmy Butler was picked as an All-Star reserve. He wasn’t just there to watch the game. He was picked to PLAY in the game. Yet Jimmy Butler played exactly the same amount of minutes as I did. And you know what, that is entirely ok. He got $25,000 to sit on the bench and cheer on Team Steph. Absolutely nothing but respect for that finesse. He did it all without playing a single minute.

During the game they mentioned he was a “bit under the weather.”

Twitter was not buying it.

Jimmy Butler got to do what everyone else was doing on Saturday night in LA. He went out on the town and had a good time. He came into “work” the next day and said I’m not feeling too hot you go ahead and do this without me.

He probably told Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, who was coaching Team Steph for the game, something along the lines of, “Be a REAL shame if I didn’t play any minutes in the All-Star game, a real shame.”

Although officially listed on the Box Score as DNP – Illness, it really should have said, DNP – Hungover, took to many shots of Moscato.

Lou Williams, the standout shooting guard for the Los Angles Clippers who had the numbers to make the All-Star team but was one of the snubs, was none to pleased when he saw Jimmy Butler play exactly  zero minutes in the game.

Much like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles’s nightlife is confirmed undefeated.

Featured Image: AARON LAVINSKY/Star Tribune

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NBA All-Star Game format a hit

This year had to be different. With the recent All-Star games in the NBA, fans were getting disinterested, as it was just a prolonged dunk contest. It failed to truly showcase how great the players partaking in the game were. NBA Commisioner Adam Silver and team captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry all stepped up to make the new NBA All-Star Game format work.

The Draft

2018 NBA All-Star Draft

All-Star Draft (Photo by: express.co.uk)

One conference playing another in any All-Star game was a great idea, before interleague play started happening in every professional sport. It allowed room for debate of who had the better players and which conference was better overall. It solved the great unknown questions of the era.

Those questions are, for the most part now answered.  Now teams get to play each other multiple times a year in the NBA and the Western Conference is deeper than the Eastern Conference. Players no longer take pride in their conference, but rather in their specific teams and themselves. The change to a draft format was necessary.

James and Curry treated the draft the right way, with James selecting Kevin Durant to start off the selections. Both tried to field teams that could win rather than picking players they were close with. Curry was unable to get his teammate, Durant, and James didn’t pick his teammate, Kevin Love, early at all.

The draft itself helped create some interesting matchups and combinations that fans now wonder about. James and Durant, the two best players in the league, were on the same team. James was reunited with teammate Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook and Durant were on the same team for the second straight season after Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As for matchups that were created, Dwayne Casey coached team LeBron and against his own players, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Westbrook and Irving got to match up with Curry and Harden in a battle of the best guards in the league. When Team LeBron went small late in the game James got the pleasure of guarding Joel Embiid that created some great sequences.

The Effort and motivation

2018 NBA All-Star Game

Photo by: fatmouthsports.net

All the players had a lot to play for, as the winning team would get $350,000 to charity, while the losing team gets $150,000. While these aren’t great personal stakes, it gives the players something to take pride in.

This also helped create a sense of competitiveness around the game. The minutes weren’t split evenly as in past years. James played 31 minutes (as opposed to just under 20 in 2017), while Curry accumulated 26 minutes. Al Horford logged only 12 minutes and Goran Dragic was in for 11 minutes. (LaMarcus Aldrige played four minutes due to injury and Jimmy Butler sat out with sickness). While the West gave a lot of playing time last year to it’s starters, the East did not give anyone more than 24 minutes.

Not only were there more minutes played for the stars (overall), than most years, but they were on the court when it mattered. Team LeBron had their starters (with a minor concession of subbing Anthony Davis out for Paul George) on the floor at the end. Team Stephen put in Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green in at the end of the game in an effort to get a stop. Both teams gave themselves a chance to win because they put their best players on the court (or tried to) for whatever situation came up.

Another surprise was, players actually fouled to prevent baskets rather than running out of the way. There were 16 personal fouls in 2017. This year there were 26. That’s a perfect mix of making sure no one gets hurt from crazy fouls and actually trying for an All-Star Game.

The main thing that made this work was the defensive intensity. Last year there were 374 total points scored. This year the teams’ defense stepped up and only 293 total points were scored. Curry was held to 27% shooting from deep, while Harden was even worse at 15%. Staples Center did have some pretty stiff rims, but the defense was also a cause of the low shooting percentages this year.

The Finish

When it came down to the last quarter, it was apparent that both teams were actively trying to win, which isn’t always the case in an All-Star game. Timeouts were called to set up plays and, as mentioned before, the best lineups were put in for the best results.

At the very end it was Team LeBron storming back to take the lead 148-145. They needed a defensive stop against a team that was loaded with some of the best three point shooters in history. To end the game, James and Durant were able to trap Curry in the corner and prevent him from getting off a great shot.

That play capped of the best NBA All-Star game in years. If that wasn’t enough for fans, Adam Silver announced that the same format will be used next year, but that the draft will be televised. This should just generate more interest and competitiveness between players.

For once fans can get excited about All-Star weekend again.

 

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NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

You either love the NBA All-Star game, or you’re completely uninterested in it. There’s no real in between, and it’s not hard to understand why. Watching super-rich athletes engage in playground basketball with their friends is either exciting or nauseating.

NBA All-Star

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

In the past, it’s basically been a continuation of the dunk contest. Once the player is past half court, the lane clears, and the man with the ball gets to show off. Last year’s All-Star game ended in a 192-182 victory for the West. To put that into perspective, the average score of a game last season was 105.6 points. That’s how little NBA All-Stars are interested in guarding their man.

Now, be well aware that these are the best scorers in the league, in most cases. And defense is not only less exciting than offense, but it takes more effort. The All-Star break is a rare occasion that these star players can get meaningful rest, it is what’s paramount to a successful back end to a season, and playoff runs. So working hard on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t quite make sense for them.

The problem is that the game doesn’t mean anything. There’s no competition because bragging rights are essentially irrelevant to these players. They have already proven they’re the best in the game by being chosen, so why try?

The new draft format and $100,000 cash prize are attempts at trying to remedy this issue. It’s unclear whether or not these changes will make any difference in competitiveness. But before evaluating and predicting, let’s look at the updated rosters.

Rosters

Team LeBron: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook

NBA All-Star

Westbrook and Durant will be on the same All-Star team for the second year in a row. (Photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar Derozan, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Worth mentioning here is the fact that LeBron’s squad has lost four All-Star selections to injury. In the first year of the draft format, that’s not good. It’s especially bad considering all of the injuries came from the same team.

Also worth noting is that Westbrook and Aldridge missed four games between them in the last week. They will be ready for the All-Star Game, but that’s two more question marks for Team LeBron.

The replacements for injured players were not conference-specific. While in the past, someone from the same conference would have had to be chosen, this time it’s simply overall vote-getters. This probably led to the continued snub of Lou Williams, and Dragic sneaking his way in.

Team Curry

With all of his original players still in the lineup, Curry’s team has to be the favorite.

With Antetokounmpo, Derozan, Horford, Embiid and Towns, the team has tremendous length. And those of them who can’t slash to the bucket can certainly handle themselves around and beneath it.

Add in Curry and Harden, and that should be all the shooting they need. But, still, they have Butler, Lillard, Lowry and Thompson to pick up the slack. All of them can also get to the hoop, as well. But with the length on display, expect to see a lot of three-pointers from this team.

Team Curry is also being coached by Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and the most potent offense in the league. Not that a team of this many great players will need much coaching, but expect D’Antoni to draw up offensive set pieces consistently and try to win this game with 150-plus points.

Team LeBron

Again, this team has been decimated by injuries. Four have been replaced, and two more are reportedly not at 100 percent.

Those replacements have been: Paul George for DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic for Kevin Love, Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond for John Wall.

NBA All-Star

Kristaps Porzingis won’t participate after tearing his ACL on Feb. 6. (Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

These injuries have made the team markedly smaller. Porzingis’ and Love’s replacements cost the team almost two feet of length. Having Drummond in for Wall stops the bleeding a little, but Drummond is not effective more than five feet from the basket. Kevin and Kristaps are both big men who can shoot from anywhere, and rest assured they would be if they were playing.

Some NBA fans might like the current lineup better for one reason or another. The point of All-Star selections is that they are subjective. And in just one game, the pieces don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to win. But, losing four bonafide All-Stars for players that were “the best of the rest” shouldn’t inspire confidence.

LeBron’s team is being coached by Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East. A no-nonsense defensive coach is a definite shake up for the All-Star Game. If Casey holds the other squad to less than 140 points, he will have lived up to that reputation.

We all know that LeBron is tired of losing, but we’ll see if he can will his team to that $100,000 prize.

Effort

Speaking of $100,000, does it really matter to some of the richest athletes in the sport? These players not only have massive contracts, but they’re all so good that they have deals and endorsements and appearances to help bolster their bank accounts.

What many fans might not know, is each member of the losing team will get $25,000. So that narrows the net winnings to $75,000. Sure, it would be life-changing money for most people in the world, but is that $75,000 worth the effort to these players?

Players don’t want to sound ungrateful, or out of touch with the rest of the world. So odds are, all 24 of them would answer with some form of, “yes, of course it matters.” And I’m sure it would be nice to have $75,000 more than you had yesterday. Especially if you receive it for playing a game you play every single night. But the fans will never really know how interested the players are. It’s an exercise in futility to read into it too much. The players will give however much they want to on the court, end of story.

LeBron will be out there trying his best to win. Curry will, too. They did put these teams together, after all. They want to be seen as a better “fantasy” manager than the other. But with the injuries, LeBron’s team has an excuse if they lose, and Curry’s team has a small incentive to take things easy on defense.

NBA All-Star

Curry and James picked the All-Star teams, and will go head-to-head again in 2018. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

With the new format, this should be a more competitive game. It will still be high scoring, and there will still be more joking around than defensive pressure. But the winning team won’t be eight points shy of 200 this year.

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

This was an easy call to make. The shooting and athleticism on Curry’s team is overwhelming. LeBron’s team will show more effort, and with Coach Casey on the sidelines, will be more engaged on the defensive end. But in the end, the shooting is what will matter.

People will clear the lane for Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry will take 15 three-pointers each, and Embiid will trash talk his way either into or out of America’s heart.

Featured image by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

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